July 13, 2018

(AP Image / Keith Srakocic)

We rely on precision in every part of our lives. We take for granted the fact that if our car breaks down, we can buy a replacement part, instead of a whole new car. But there was a time before standardized car parts, standardized batteries, and standardized shoe sizes. In his new book The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World, author and journalist Simon Winchester set out to learn how the concept of precision came to be, and how it changed the world.

Three Takeaways:

  • In 1776, iron enthusiast and engineer John Wilkinson machined the iron parts that would tie the country together—the cylinders for the first steam engine. Precision engineering is only possible using materials that don’t warp and change much over time, like metal, glass, and ceramic.
  • Industrialization would have been impossible without standard units of measurement and precise technology. The emergence of precision was closely tied to 18th century politics and economics, as countries vied for military and industrial advantages.
  • Engineers may have begun to hit the limits of precision in manufacturing material goods. Winchester isn’t concerned, however. He points out that “precise” doesn’t always mean “better” in consumer goods. High quality products hand-made by experts are often less precise than their cheaper, assembly-line counterparts.

More reading:

  • Gun manufacturing has long been a driving force in economic expansion and precision innovation. Stanford historian Priya Satia talks about the gun industry’s impact on American culture.
  • The kilogram is the last international standard of measure based on a man-made object. And since its creation in 1889, the kilogram standard-bearer has... lost weight. It will likely be replaced in 2019 by a standard based on the laws of physics.
  • Simon Winchester was first introduced to precision engineering by his father, who showed him how gauge blocks stick together. How do they work? Not magnetism. In this video, physicist Phil Moriarty explains the science and demonstrates the blocks.

Simon Winchester, Precision Engineering, Sci and Tech

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